Monday, February 21, 2011

President’s Day and American Presidents

GeorgeWashingtonWhen I was a boy, we celebrated Abraham Lincoln’s birthday on February 12 and George Washington’s on February 22.  Forty years ago, it was decreed that there would be one day in February, the third Monday, that would honor all U.S. presidents. 

President’s Day presents an opportunity to reflect on the various presidents and the office of the presidency, something which was unique at its creation in the Constitutional Convention.

The framers invented an office with enough administrative authority to tackle some of the weaknesses of the earlier Articles of Confederation period.  Alexander Hamilton wrote in Federalist 70:  “A feeble executive implies a feeble execution of the government.”

They identified clear  responsibilities as well as certain requirements and checks.  They wanted an executive with enough power but not too much, for as James Madison wrote in Federalist 51:  “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition.”

But the theory and constitutional strictures might have been illusory if the early officeholders, especially the first, had not exercised prudence and plain commonsense.  Fortunately, for the new nation George Washington, “the indispensable man,” was the initial occupant.

Washington understood the need to defer to Congress and the courts when appropriate.  He was an exemplar of  cooperation within a three-branch government.  He chose to conduct himself as the leading minister of government and not a king.  And he established the two-term precedent that lasted until 1940.

Overall, the first president’s greatest contribution was in what he did not do:  He did not usurp power or hold on to it indefinitely; he chose to freely transfer power as part of the electoral process.  His actions impressed his old rival King George III and should impress us. 

Washington clearly sits at or near the top of America’s outstanding presidents and leaders. But when looking across the spectrum of the subsequent presidents, it is sometimes unclear who were the most meritorious.  There are frequent listings and, indeed, a Gallup Poll released last week shows the flaws of some of these rankings.

In this poll, the “greatest president” was Ronald Reagan.  He is followed by Lincoln, Bill Clinton, John F. Kennedy, George Washington, Franklin Roosevelt, Barack Obama, Theodore Roosevelt, Harry Truman, George W. Bush and Thomas Jefferson.

The Gallup organization, of course, was simply doing what it does well, polling people.  But the presumption that popularity or perhaps political affiliation would reflect greatness is discouraging.  Assuming there is a value in ranking presidents, how do we identify those whose contributions were the most significant?

Here are two suggestions.  First, measure their ability to grapple with major problems during challenging times.  Washington, Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt would have to be identified as among those whose impact was significant. 

Second, sufficient time needs to elapse before a president’s legacy can be discerned.  Regardless of how you feel about Reagan, Clinton or George W. Bush, it is simply too early to make a determination about their lasting import.  And to suggest that President Obama’s role in history now exceeds that of Theodore Roosevelt or Thomas Jefferson is simply bogus—time will tell for him and for others.

For more on U.S. presidents, see:

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